Scientists to use scent to control destructive rodent behaviour

Research on the scent signals of mice and rats, by a team at the University of Liverpool and Rothamsted Research, will help inform future rodent-control strategies aimed at reducing the damage they cause to food resources around the world.

The £4.7 million research programme has received funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) in the form of a strategic Longer and Larger award (sLoLa). These provide internationally-leading research teams with the resources to conduct multidisciplinary research to address major global challenges.

Rodents are a serious threat to global food security. Research suggests that even a 5% reduction in the damage that rodents cause to cereal harvests could help feed one third of all undernourished people worldwide. Rodents also spread many livestock and human diseases.

The team is investigating the scent signal mechanisms that rodents use to navigate around their habitat, communicate with each other, and reproduce. Scientists aim to use these signals to monitor and manipulate rodent behaviour to contribute to new approaches for better control of the destructive nature of rats and mice.

Current rodent control strategies are based on poisons delivered in food or water baits, but there is increasing concern that these chemicals persist in the environment and have negative impacts on non-target species. This new study will reduce the problems with current strategies by providing more efficient ways of targeting rodents, whilst improving the humaneness of control methods.

Professor Jane Hurst, from the University’s Institute of Integrative Biology, said: “Rodents cause problems in countries all over the world due to the food they destroy, the disease they spread to livestock and humans, and the damage they cause to the built and rural environment. Rats and mice reproduce very rapidly and prove difficult to track, particularly as they learn quickly how to evade current control strategies.

“Our research on rodent behaviour and communication has helped us to understand the complexity of mammalian scents and their meaning, and the role of learning in modifying behavioural responses. Several types of scent signals will be key to this work, including those involved in sexual attraction and predator avoidance.

“We will be working closely with a wide range of stakeholders from pest control, environmental health, animal welfare and food industries to ensure that we maintain a practical focus and establish clear pathways for subsequent deployment of new strategies.”

Professor John Pickett, from Rothamsted Research, said: “This is an exciting development, bringing together the pioneering rodent behaviour and molecular science at Liverpool with the chemical ecology at Rothamsted that has had such a strong impact on arthropod pest control. Our programme will develop completely new ways to manage rodent problems.”

The work is led by Professor Jane Hurst, Professor Rob Beynon and Professor Lu-Yun Lian at the University of Liverpool, and Professor John Pickett and Dr Mike Birkett at Rothamsted Research.

Notes to editors:

1. The University of Liverpool is a member of the Russell Group of leading research-intensive institutions in the UK. It attracts collaborative and contract research commissions from a wide range of national and international organisations valued at more than £110 million annually.

2. Rothamsted Research is one of the oldest agricultural research station in the world. Over its 160 year history, Rothamsted Research has built an enviable reputation for world-class scientific research to deliver knowledge, innovation and new practices to increase crop productivity and quality, and to develop environmentally sustainable solutions for agriculture. Rothamsted Research receives a total of £23.8M in strategic programme grants from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

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